Asia in the movies

The 2013 Pan-Asia Film Festival.

The Pan-Asia Film Festival, now in its fifth year, starts this Wednesday (6 March). The festival seeks to showcase Asia’s most exciting new cinematic productions, spanning countries from Japan to Iran. 

There are 12 films competing for the Inaugural Best Film Award. From satires and horror films, shorts to animation, festival director Sumantro Ghose, along with guest judges Nikki Bedi and Hardeep Singh Kohli, will have a challenging decision on their hands.

Some highlights

Taiwanese director Yang Ya-Che takes the all too familiar love triangle in a new direction in his 105 minute film GF*BF(2012). Set in Taiwan, and focusing on the democracy movement of the 1980s and 1990s - a period of immense social and political transformation - protagonists Mabel, Aaron and Liam’s shifting emotional loyalties form the basis of a complex and ambitious plot. GF*BF transports us to selected chunks of this decade in an attempt to convey the entanglement of political transformation and personal development. GF*BF  has been chosen for the opening night gala held at Cineworld Haymarket in London (Wednesday 6 March, 6.30pm).  

From Iran comes Nahid Ghobadi and Bijan Zamanpira’s satirical debut feature 111 Girls (2012) which describes the journey of an Iranian diplomat to Kurdistan after receiving a letter threatening the suicide of 111 young women in protest at conditions in their village which have rendered them spinsters. With their fathers and brothers having either died or disappeared, and suitable men hard to come by, these women address the president with a four-day ultimatum stating they will jump to their death unless provided with an eligible suitor. The eccentric premise of this film is inspired by Kurdistan’s present situation. It is characterised by notably powerful visual imagery, shifting from dreamlike sequences to Beckett-esque dark humour. 111 Girls will premiere at Cine Lumiere in London on Wednesday 13 March at 8.30pm.

Thailand’s  Pen-ek Ratnaruang has devised a unique fusion of spirituality and film noir thriller in his film Headshot (2011). Based on the story of an honest policeman turned angel of vengeance, the film follows his quest to balance society’s moral compass. An accident during an altercation leaves the protagonist literally seeing the world upside down. The unique camera positioning used to elucidate the result of the accident is an effective vehicle for combining Buddhist themes of karma, rebirth and redemption with stylistic film noir tropes of spatial disorientation and a stark contrast between light and shadow.  Headshot is showing at  the ICA in London on Tuesday 12 March at 8.30pm.

A selection of short films from Hong Kong’s Fresh Wave Film Festival – a centre for cutting-edge film production – will also be shown for the first time on London’s screens under the title Fresh Wave Shorts. Fresh Wave Shorts will be screened at the ICA on Thursday14  March at 6.30pm.

Taiwanese director Yang Ya-Che (Photo: Getty Images)
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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle